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Three Minutes to Midnight

In the 70th year after nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and 100 years after chemical weapons were used at the Battle of Ypres during the First World War, we are experiencing one of the most insecure periods in decades. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is calling it 'three minutes to midnight' on the Doomsday Clock. Against this background one would expect the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the only multilateral body mandated by the UN to negotiate arms reduction and control treaties, and with a clear remit for nuclear disarmament, to be fully engaged with this global situation. Yet the organisation itself is in crisis and almost completely paralysed. It is unable to come up with any concrete measures or to even agree on a program of work. At the beginning of 2015 there were 10,149 operational nuclear warheads in the world. Though this is less than the stockpile at the height of the Cold War, a lot of today's warheads are in far less secure circumstances. The Soviet Union and the US were very good at managing their ultimate deterrents with hotlines and clear rules. Today it is far more difficult to second guess when China may feel the need to use its 250 warheads or when Israel feels that its 80 have come into their own, without even discussing North Korean failsafes

The CD meets in the Council Chamber of the Palais des Nations, originally designed for the League of Nations, and all proceedings are translated into the six official languages of the UN - English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. The 65 member countries and 40 observer states are served by a phalanx of officials and include the UN Security's five permanent (and nuclear) members - the US, Russia, France, United Kingdom and China - and other states either in possession or possible pursuit of nuclear weapons such as India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and Iran, as well as former nuclear weapons states such as

Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and South Africa. This unwieldy body works through sets of arcane rules and protocols, rotating the presidency to all attendant states.

Over the years of seemingly endless negotiations the organisation has painted itself into a corner. Just as the global community needs the CD to be most vigilant and active, it is finding it almost impossible to come up with any productive outcomes since any resolution or decision can be vetoed by a single member. Even the now Director General of the UN in Geneva, Michael Moller, himself involved in the CD, admonishes that 'this is not a debating society. This is supposed to be a negotiating body and they haven't negotiated a damn thing for 19 years. I find it pretty close to criminal.' Pakistan is the worst offender in terms of the veto, but nuclear politics being what they are at the moment, this may well be a convenience for certain other states.

Despite all its many, seemingly insoluble, problems, it has to be said that at least the 105 nations are in the one room, week in week out, and mostly speaking to each other, even if nothing tangible is being decided. If it were to be disbanded, the CD would need to be replaced with a similar forum. And it has in the past achieved monumental successes such as the global bans on biological and chemical weapons and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

This essay is an observation of the diplomatic process, of the frustration, the threats and failures, but also of dialogue and rare moments of optimism. Mark Henley attended more than 50 sessions over a four year period and took up the challenge of photographing a conference unlike any other - with such a vital remit and yet such negative outcomes. A conference without apparent end and without present direction.

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